Tag Archives: Science

Inconvenient Truths: Spinning Obligations to our Planet and Each Other, Dr. Robert Zuber

23 Apr

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Memory is a complicated thing, a relative to truth, but not its twin. Barbara Kingsolver

The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.  Flannery O’Connor

The truth is not always beautiful, nor beautiful words the truth.  Lao Tzu

This was an often interesting and generally head-spinning week for the world and for the UN.  Alongside a bevy of unwelcome political and military tensions, one highlight for us was the scientific community (and supporters) taking the streets in support of facts, in part as an appeal to a society that too often believes what it wants to believe and prefers shiny branding and pious reassurances to the truths – about science, about the health of our planet, about ourselves — that disrupt our ambitions and inconvenience our personal schedules.

The marches were also an appeal to our political leaders who seem to believe that unless and until something is 100% settled (and much in science is not quite that), they are “free” to make up what they wish about our past and present, to carve whatever narrative they can use to convince people of things about which they would do better to be skeptical.  For too much of our leadership, truth more and more is about the capacity to convince based on pre-determined ideologies than about the weighted importance of evidence or the intrinsic value of curiosity – being open to new ideas, the next question, perspectives that can complete and enrich our own cognitive circles.

If we think we know everything that needs to be done, every lens that needs to be examined, every fact and challenge that needs to be integrated, we are probably too comfortable with small or incomplete perspectives; embracing half-measures when the recipe calls for a full portion, spouting stereotypical clichés when the times call for an honest disaggregation of the “truths” we espouse that might apply to some contexts in some measure but not to all contexts in all measure.

Despite our proliferating school degrees and professional certificates and across our political spectrum, we have seemingly never been so vulnerable to spin. As we are reminded on this World Book Day, we would all do well to read more and talk less, to think harder and argue softer.

While the science marches weren’t directed at the UN per se, we have plenty of our own “spin” in this space, officials too often embracing aspects of the truth that serve national (or bureaucratic) interests while ignoring elements that call for more flexible political or institutional positions. In the UN building as a whole, certainly in the Security Council, things unspoken are often more important than what is actually shared.  Delegations will often make perfectly valid but willfully incomplete contributions to policy, in more than a few instances hoping that the truth they convey will be enough to satisfy listeners, will distract people from all that is still needed if we are to complete the policy circle.

An example of this selectivity occurred this past Tuesday when US Ambassador Haley (serving as Council president for this month) introduced a Security Council discussion focused on “Human rights and prevention of armed conflict.” This was, as she noted, the first time that the Council had ever met to discuss as a stand-alone the “red flags” of human rights abuse that spill within and across national borders, a surprising if accurate claim to many (us included) who have long assumed (and pointed out) a consistent relationship linking human rights violations and the potential for armed violence.

Secretary-General Guterres was the primary briefer for the session. He restated his own personal commitment to work more closely with the Council on this and other issues, while also pointing out the “grave challenges” associated with efforts to reduce the “wounds of war.”   Guterres was clear, as Italy and other states were later in the afternoon, that the only way to address such wounds is to make war less likely. Thus attention to gross human rights violations — what France called the “sowing of hatred” — as a major contributing factor to armed conflict is therefore fully warranted.

But Guterres (and later Kazakhstan and Uruguay) also made plain the need to “depoliticize” both human rights and the related promotion of sustainable development.  It didn’t take long for this warning to be disregarded.   Amb. Haley herself used the occasion to lump together Cuba, Iran and the DPRK as human rights violators from which troika will arise “the next crisis.”  Shortly thereafter, the deputy foreign minister of Ukraine alleged Russia’s “phobia” on rights stemming in part from its military adventurism and occupation of Crimea.

Egypt was one of several states (including Russia) citing double standards and false interpretations lying at heart of our responses to many global issues.  They urged the Security Council to respect and work closely with other UN agencies (such as the Human Rights Council) specifically tasked with promoting human rights and –through the special rapporteurs, special procedures mandate holders, and direct examinations by the Human Rights Committee and other treaty bodies – working with states to improve their human rights performance.

In the end, the issue for the Council was not whether human rights should have a firm place in their deliberations.  As Sweden noted, there is no denying that rights violations are core contributors to social instability and violence; nor can we deny that our enduring “culture of impunity” and growing disregard for international law constitute major flaws in our peace and security architecture.   The question has to do with the proper role for the Council, a body that too often preempts effective action elsewhere in the global system and which too often exempts from criticism those very same Council members all too willing to point the finger beyond their own borders.

It was Ethiopia that seemed to offer the most concrete and sensible way forward, a way that combines receptivity to fact-finding from other UN colleagues; a pledge to support rather than undermine other relevant UN agencies; and attention to dimensions of “fairness” in the investigation and application of human rights concerns. In addition, Ethiopia urged what it called the “overdue” commitment of Council members to regular self-reflection and assessment regarding their mandated responsibilities, including the degree to which Council members uphold in their own practice the same Charter values they insist on for others.

Amb. Haley noted that there is “so much more to be done” in the Council on human rights, and at one level she is right.   But that “much more” is not about trying to control another core UN obligation, not about selectively and/or righteously beating up political adversaries for alleged abuses – as though any state is blameless on the rights scale. Rather it is about promoting and sharing the best information from across the UN system and beyond, ensuring that abuses can be identified and then addressed in their early stages as one means to head off conflicts whose resulting wounds are now far beyond our capacity to heal.

And also offering better protection to the vulnerable when our preventive efforts fail: Facts and information on the one hand; policy resolve and compassion on the other.

In the discussion’s aftermath, one of the most respected academic voices on Africa, Paul Williams, pointed out on twitter that the same person who chaired the Council meeting advocating for a larger role on human rights, including as a priority for peacekeeping operations, is an official of the very same government actively seeking to reduce those operations.  This highlights part of the obligation to truth-telling in the international community that offices like ours scrutinize and that lurks beyond the province of our carefully-crafted narratives – not just the truth that serves national interests, but the truth that reflects the general interest; the truth that is beholden to the full picture not simply the corner of the canvas that reinforces our national or organizational aesthetic.